Archive for October, 2011

The Deadliest Hurricane

If I had managed to stomach all the math, I would have been a meteorologist. As it is I am an avid weather-watcher, I love watching meteorologists get all hyped up about weather systems, but there are some storms that as you watch them form and become more powerful that you get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.  I remember watching the run-up to Hurricane Ike in Texas and  seeing people on the news saying “Oh it won’t be that bad. It’s not like it is as big as Katrina.” and then listening to the forecasters warn get out of the way!  And yes the hurricane wasn’t as bad as Katrina in terms of strength but it had a monster storm surge and swallowed up whole peninsulas on the Texas Gulf coast and washed away houses that people swore couldn’t be washed away… and took people with it, who were never found again.

Hurricane Ike turned out to be the third most costly hurricane in US history (after Katrina and Andrew) and it was “only” a Category two storm. What it showed was how much trust people put in modern technology, and how much denial that they piled on, thinking that sometime horrible couldn’t happen to them. Sad but true. And this is a story that is repeated over and over again– and is the focus of Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.

Larson’s book focuses on the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, which killed somewhere between 8,000-12,000 people, and on the local meteorologist Isaac Cline, who was responsible for warning the island’s residents, but who failed to see the signs that the hurricane was coming their way. This is also a story of America’s Gilded Age belief in Progress and Modernity, and that mankind was above nature, and could in some way control it. It also outlines the politics and ethnocentrism of the period, as the Cubans accurately predicted the hurricane and tried to warn the US, but the US (who viewed Cuba as lazy and their forecasting techniques as based on “superstition”) refused to head Cuba’s warning. The result was utter carnage.

Larson does a fantastic job painting a picture of the local politics of Galveston and meteorology at the time. He also does a wonderful job actually re-creating the events for the reader, in vivid detail. You get a sense of dread as the islanders continue on with daily life despite a monster storm surge and the angry Gulf that washed into their front yards preceding the hurricane. Galveston was, after all, a boomtown during this period, and its citizens were not going to let a little storm slow them down.

The events unfold almost in slow motion. Those who survive were in parts lucky, or among the few that had access to strong, sturdy masonry buildings several stories high and well away from the coast. And in 1900, once the telegraph lines went down, and the train tracks washed out, no one knew. For days no one knew what had happened to Galveston until people walked in and found a virtual hell on earth. So many dead that the authorities were forced to burn the bodies. So much destruction that they simply bulldozed whole acres of the city. The scenes that Larson describe are out of an apocalypse.

Except that these kinds of scenes have happened again,  and again, in modern periods. One memory from watching the hurricane coverage of Katrina that has stuck with me all these years was the interview of a woman who lived in an ocean-side condo in MS. When the surge came up and wiped out her well-built condo she was washed inland, along with her dog, a small black terrier. She was lucky, and managed to climb up into a tree and hung on for the rest of the night, one arm holding onto the tree and one arm holding onto her dog. As she talked to the reporter she seemed amazed that both she and her dog managed to survive a monster storm in a tree and all she had left were the clothes on her back, badly lacerated hands, and her dog.

In the end Mother Nature is greater than us. No amount of technology will ever made us safe from storms and other disasters. That is something that we need to understand and come to terms with, and Larson’s book a fabulous reminder as to why– a hundred years ago, Americans were brash enough to think they could understand and predict deadly storms. A hundred years later, we still think that, yet we continue to suffer. Will we ever learn?

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Jane Austen Would Mind

I need to get better about blogging. In some ways the blogging has almost become an obligatory book report. I have been reading but not blogging about what I am reading because I have been busy reading.

Okay today’s post is about two books- both Jane Austen spinoffs.  My friend the Awesome S had warned me to stay away from the spinoffs, because most are badly written– with the exception of Pamela Aidan’s series of Pride and Prejudice from Darcy’s point of view (which she says is the best of the bunch, and now having read a few other spin-offs, I concur), but I just couldn’t resist. So one weekend when I was trying to avoid grading papers I read two of the spin-offs and came away feeling, well, unsatisfied. S had warned me. I should have known better.

I started with Maria Hamilton’s Mr Darcy and the Secret of Becoming a Gentleman mainly because it was highly reviewed by other readers on Amazon. The book has an interesting set-up— what would happen if Darcy had pursued Elizabeth Bennet back to her home right after she initially refused him? What sort of chaos would erupt within the Bennett family, and what sort of misunderstandings would follow? At first I enjoyed the book- I felt like the author had captured the mood and spirit of Austen’s world and had managed to put an original spin on it– but then the last third of the book. Oh man. It devolved into a bad romance novel.  Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy would have never gotten it on before the wedding night, such actions were incredibly untrue to their characters (especially with Darcy’s sense of honor and Elizabeth’s own sense of propriety), all this does is turn an interesting book into a bad, really bad,  romance novel.  Plus the ending turns Elizabeth Bennett into a completely uninteresting character– something that I never thought possible. (And I have no problem with romance novels– the thing is there is such a thing as truth in advertising. I had hoped this would be true to the spirit of Austen’s original work. Compared to when one reads a romance novel, you expect for the hunky hero to save the damsel in distress and other high jinks to ensue.)

So the ending of the book ruined it to me. Instead of being a clever re-working of Austen’s comedy of manners it turns into a bad romance novel. Ick.

The second Austen spin-off that I read was Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice  by Jennifer Becton. So this one was quite a bit better. What Becton did was take a minor character (Charlotte Lucas) and built a story around her. In this telling Charlotte Collins has become a widow rather suddenly– the odious Mr Collins has died unexpectedly, and Charlotte is left a poor, young widow. To add to that, she becomes responsible for her younger sister Maria, who moves in with Charlotte in order to be properly chaperoned on the “catch a husband” circuit, as their parents are now too old. Well Maria and Charlotte enter into society and all sorts of misunderstandings and fun ensue. What I liked about this book is that it stayed close to the Austen style– in fact it pays homage to Sense and Sensibility as much as it does to Pride and Prejudice. And there are no bad romance-novel scenes. This is a short little book, easily read in a night and enjoyable.

So a mixed bag, but I do think that Jane Austen would mind that all the fan fiction turns her smoldering hero Mr. Darcy into some bodice-ripping Englishman. Because what I think is so wonderful about the Darcy character is that he is left so mysterious, and that the reader can assign to him the qualities that they want— and I think he is better left that way.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C